Directed by: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Premise: Based on true events. In her sixties, competitive swimmer Diana Nyad (Annette Bening) attempts to be the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida with the help of her friend and coach Bonnie Stoll (Jodie Foster).
What Works: Nyad is a sports film and it delivers everything that viewers want and expect from that genre while offering a character study of its subject. Diana Nyad was a competitive swimmer who had completed several record swims in open water before trying and failing to complete the 100-mile journey from Cuba to Florida. In her sixties, Nyad decided to try again. Like many sports films, Nyad is about the willingness of athletes to push themselves to their physical and psychological limits and the picture does that very well. We have a sense of this woman’s discipline and focus but also the rigor and danger of the endeavor. While swimming the Straits of Florida, Nyad encounters jellyfish and sharks and contends with weather and hypothermia. Quite a bit of attention is paid to the planning. Diana Nyad was accompanied by a team led by her coach Bonnie Stoll and included wildlife experts, a navigator, and a medic. The team butts up against Nyad’s self-centeredness; her pride is earned but it’s also overwhelming. The forcefulness that makes Nyad a fierce competitor is also her greatest flaw as a person and the filmmakers give her a character arc as she learns to work with others. It’s the only way she’s going to accomplish her goals. The film includes flashbacks to Nayad’s youth in which it’s revealed that she was abused by her childhood swimming coach. This matter is handled tactfully while deepening her character and giving some insight into Nyad’s single-minded determinedness. The heart of this film is the relationship between swimmer Diana Nyad and coach Bonnie Stoll, played by Annette Bening and Jodie Foster. Both actors are very good. They are convincing as longtime friends and the stress of the journey and the mortal risk Nyad assumes compound the risk. Stoll isn’t just responsible for a swimmer; she’s responsible for her best friend’s life which complicates the stakes for both of them. Nyad is a feel-good movie but it earns that payoff because it is so invested in those physical and psychological stakes.
What Doesn’t: At the height of exhaustion during her swims, Nyad experiences hallucinations which the filmmakers visualize on screen. The digital effects of these sequences are uneven. A few images look great but others are very cartoonish. They aren’t in keeping with the realistic style of the rest of the film and the hallucinations don’t have storytelling economy. They don’t lead to an epiphany by Nyad or by the audience.
Disc extras: Available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Nyad is a very good sports picture. It provides the kind of thrills and affirmation that audiences look for in that genre but this is also a textured character study and a warm relationship picture.
Episode: #977 (December 17, 2023)